Todaiji on New Years

Temple Torches at Midnight

On December 29th we got up early and took the train to Tokyo so that we could ride the shinkansen, bullet train, to Kyoto. We stepped up to the platform and felt an air of expectancy from traveling families, waiting for the train with us. It no longer felt like a train station filled with bored commuters, but more like an airport with its air of excited expectancy. We're going on a trip! We're free from work today!

Little children tottered around, followed by weary mothers and doting fathers… lugging little red backpacks and wearing hello kitty or other cute character outfits. Older ladies lugged suitcases and carried bags full of omiyage, souvenir gifts. When we got on the shiny and new bullet train, we saw everyone settle in and almost immediately pull out wooden box bentos, grabbing hashi,chopsticks, and tucking in enthusiastically. Each bento looked delicious and fresh, with rice portions, deep fried meats, plain fish or chicken, pickled vegetables, tempura and sometimes a salad. We felt a little left out, but resolved to purchase a bento later from the shinkansen server.

Our seats were spacious and had a little hook by the window for our scarves or coats. We settled into the seats and prepared to enjoy our trip. The shinkansen raced towards Kyoto, and we could hardly feel the movement. I was a little disappointed, actually. I thought I might be pinned to my seat with the force of the train's speed- like riding in a raceboat. Instead, the ride was smooth and the only indication of our speed was the scenery we passed. Most of the passengers were families with little children, who popped above and under the seats, crawling over parents and making assorted chattering, squeaking, wailing, or giggling sounds. When we got off of the shinkansen, we were in Kyoto!

The Kyoto train station is amazing. Glass and metal tower above you… escalators seem to lead everywhere- including into the sky… and yet, it is dotted with little cafes just waiting to be ducked into. We were enticed by the idea of prowling about Kyoto- but I was tired, so we went searching for a Starbucks. We went all the way to the top of the staircase- and through the cement sky garden, to a cement area enclosed by lightly darkened glass. We looked down, over the city of Kyoto- and saw a sea of concrete buildings below, with a few temples bravely poking through.

We wandered down a staircase and found ourselves in a gorgeous department store with huge arrays of Kyoto omiyage (gifts). Finally we asked a nice salesgirl where the Starbucks was- and were delighted to understand her answer in Japanese! We wandered out of the station and down a stairway to a underground shopping area. There was a painted wooden board with sheep painted on it, with mysterious peep holes at the eyes. I climbed on a short wooden stool and peeked through- to see a kaleidoscope of sheep! (This new year is the Year of the Ram)

We went on to Starbucks, where I had my usual "Gingerbread Latte" and Justin had a "Caramel Macchiato." Refreshed, we ventured out again and were amazed to see that it was lightly snowing! We wandered out into the streets around the Kyoto station, sure that we would find a temple nearby. We passed The Gap, and the Kids Gap clothing stores (to my surprise) but then found a temple, staffed with volunteers at the gates to take donations and sell charms. We explored the grounds a little, and watched little kids chase the pigeons, before heading back to the train station.

We got on a little red train towards Aaron's place near Nara…. and watched the scenery flow past. It didn't take long to get out of the urban concrete jungle and see some beautiful scenes of agricultural japan. We saw fields of tea bushes, with symmetrical, shiny green leaves. We saw mt. Fuji in the distance, like some watercolor painting hovering over the fields. And of course, we saw waterways and streams- they seemed like serene paintings or photographs of "the hidden japan.." Of course, in between each beautiful landscape we went through towns, and saw the same ugly, concrete apartments, colored tile house roofs, and laundry hung out to dry on balconies that we see everywhere here.

We changed trains once and then finally, we were at Aaron's station. We saw his unmistakable red hair outside the ticket gate and hurried across to greet him. We walked out of the station into his quiet neighborhood, passing vending machines, a small liquor store, a mysterious industrial processing building, cozy duplexes and houses, and finally arrived at his duplex. Aaron's apartment is similar in size to ours, but a little older, and furnished by several generations of other JETs, so it has a worn, lived in feeling. We dumped off our luggage, which by this time felt like it weighed a thousand pounds, and went to Nara.

Nara was just two short train rides away, and when we got off, I could feel the wheels of tourism turning. Big posters festoon columns at the station, with huge color pictures of the most famous places- such as Todaiji (Buddhist temple). It was fairly quiet at the station, and we made our way past a Starbucks (I was too hungry to want a latte) and outside of the station.

We headed past a large statue and water fountain outside to enter into a covered touristy shopping and restaurant area, and begin a marathon walk to find towels. None of the clothing, Japanese confectionary shops (selling mochi and other tea ceremony desserts), or souvenir shops sold anything as mundane as a towel. We stopped at one modern Japanese chain store that sells nothing but trendy home and clothing items in neutral colors, and found towels there, but since they were about $20 each we walked on. Aaron was suffering from a bad flu/cold but he was determined to buy towels so we would have towels the next morning. Finally we got to the local suupa (supermarket/department store) called Daie and found blissfully cheap towels (with a nice blue and white floral design).

Our mission accomplished, we walked back along the tourist gauntlet to an Izakaya restaurant. We had some typical izakaya snacks- the boys had some breaded, cheesy, fried mochi and I ordered grilled squid and rice kim chi bibbinba. It was pretty good. After that, Aaron wasn't feeling well, so we went back to his house and he went to bed. It was still early, so we stayed up in the tatami room, huddled under the heated kotatsu blanket, playing the Playstation 2 game, Final Fantasy 10. We never have time to do anything so frivolous at home (and we don't have a video game machine) so it was very luxurious to play together. We took turns and had a nice time just relaxing together.

The next day, Aaron decided to combat his cold by staying in bed, and we went out to explore Nara. We wandered up the hill towards the temples and main parks, through a charming Buddhist temple with impressive spires. I was really excited to finally see the famous sacred deer of Nara at the temples and at a nearby park. We rushed to buy the special deer cookies from a vendor who made the cookies with iron molds and tied them together with twine. The deer watched the vendor carts like hawks, eyeing everyone walking by to see if we had cookies.

We found some deer off by themselves and dared to feed them- and found that it is true- the deer will politely bow to you to ask for food! I can only imagine how deer must have observed the Japanese habit of bowing and adopted it as a polite begging technique… The female deer were nice, though they warily watched their youngsters and watched us to make sure we were nice to them. The male deer were usually darker in color, with sawed off horns (the government has the horns sawed off to prevent goring during mating season) and many had mangy coats. I didn't like them as well because they were more aggressive and liked to sneak up behind you and nudge at your pockets for treats. Nudge! Nudge! They seemed to say, "I'm still here, stupid- feed me too!!!" I was a little nervous to feed the deer at first, fearing they might lunge at my hand with big teeth and take off a few fingers with their cookie, but they were quite delicate about taking food. The baby deer were very precious, and shy. Some begged a little, but most were uncertain about what to do- often their mother had to be distracted a little, or she would take all the food offered to her baby.

We walked further on, past some stalls selling souvenirs, food omiyage, and others selling snack foods, and finally arrived at the famous Todaiji temple! Camera crews were setting up lighting systems and the whole place had an air of preparation and expectation. The walkway up to the temple was impressive and inspired a sense of awe… I couldn't believe we were finally at the famous Todaiji temple! We admired the beautiful octagonal lantern, adorned with bodhisattvas (beings who could attain enlightenment but turn back to help mankind attain enlightenment first) playing musical instruments. Justin took a picture of me, beaming, next to the lantern.

There was a beautiful pond outside of the temple… and a funny looking statue of Binzuru, a disciple of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position and wearing a red cap and bib. People pray before the Binzuru and it is thought if you rub a body part of the statue and then rub the same body part on yourself, then any pain or infirmity will disappear. We admired the beautiful golden bodhisattva on the left of the great Buddha, and then just stared upward at the Great Buddhas benevolent, wide face above. Photographers had cameras set up along one side of the Buddha and were painstakingly perfecting their shots. We walked around the Great Buddha, and I was amazed at the way the Buddha was hemmed in by the rafters of the great temple. I always like to see the backs of the Buddhas, the aspect that is not meant to be seen. Photographs always show you the front of the deity, and never the back… by actually visiting a temple you really get the three dimensional perspective.

There is a pillar to the left of the Buddha, almost behind him, with an opening the size of the Great Buddha's nostril near the floor. It is said that if you can get through this opening, you will instantly gain enlightenment, and so schoolchildren and extremely slim young women line up to wiggle through. Adults clustered around the pillar to photograph children as the poked through the opening, laughing and enjoying the spectacle. Right after the pillar, the temple venders had set up book displays and postcard arrays. I immediately dove into the postcards while Justin went to look at the temple charms.

Here are some nice pictures from someone's trip to Todaiji:

We wandered out behind Todaiji and found a ghostly Shinto shrine nearby. The shrine felt like an afterthought- or perhaps just forgotten. Some of the altars for deities were abandoned, and you could see how time had ravaged the inside of the buildings. I always find myself holding my breath when we visit these shrines- expecting to hear something, or feel something speak or move. The air can be charged in these places set aside for kami- the special trees credited with having a sentient spirit protected by stones set around it can have real presence. They remind me of fairy tales about spirit circles- I can't help but think if I dared to step inside the ring of stones, I really might just vanish and find myself somewhere else. The temples symbol seemed to be a strange graphic of birds- printed out on plain white paper, this black and white graphic was tacked to stone pillars, in a strange contrast between the ancient and modern world.

We found ourselves wandering up steps and into the hill behind us, along with the shrine. We found a bell with ribbons hanging in front of another altar and watched as all the visitors rang the bell, including young children who had to grab the red ribbons and drag upon them with their entire weight. The view from that altar platform was incredible- you could see the city of Nara stretching out all around us. We kept climbing up into the hill further and further until we found ourselves facing a forest with deity statues set among the trees, with sake offerings sitting neatly in front of them. No one was around, it was just us, facing these stones, and the forest, and we went into the forest. It would have been a perfect natural landscape, surrounded by trees, and growing things, except for the echoes of the sounds of the city far below. The sounds of leaves and sticks crackling underfoot was broken occasionally by car horns and loudspeaker announcements. As we hiked, we stopped at each deity to peer at its face, at its offerings. Many had the same face… I was struck by how they were integrated into the forest as though they were a natural part of the landscape. We passed a stone ruin, and not much further up we found a huge pile of stones heaped up before a bend in the path. Justin and I added a stone to the pile and wandered a little further, but as the path vanished, I was ready to go back. The air was so clear and smelled so green that I hated to leave it for the concrete city, but I was hungry..

We wandered away from the Todaiji area and I was enticed to buy hot sweet potatoes from a vendor cooking them right in his makeshift iron baking oven. Deer with a taste for sweet potatoes lurk around the vendors, hoping to get a taste from a generous tourist. We saw them eating all kinds of things, from fried junk food, to grass, to paper bags… they are like goats pigeons, really, more than like wild deer. I chomped my sweet potato and then gave a piece to a nice looking deer, who had given herself a sore neck by bowing over and over in my direction. Then the deer began to swarm around us, and we beat a hasty retreat while the deer turned to the other tourists for food. The Japanese girls sometimes squealed and shrieked "kawai! Kawai!" (scary! Scary!) at the approaching deer, to the amusement of their friends, boyfriends, or husbands. Tourists often timidly poke food at the deer and then dart back- even though the deer are gentle, they are not completely tame. As we were walking back, we saw a baby deer and mother. I gave the last piece of sweet potato to the baby, pushing the paper wrapper at the mother to distract her, but to my surprise she grabbed it and began enthusiastically chewing on the paper. She wouldn't let us get the paper back, despite our best efforts, seeming to find it as tasty as the potato would have been.

The temperature was dropping with the sun, and I was still quite hungry, so we went to the tourist shopping/ restaurant area back near the station. After much debate, we decided on a restaurant with a huge selection of plastic food ice cream sundaes, rice pilafs, and omerice (omelets with rice inside and varieties of sauce). We walked down the steps into the narrow, café style restaurant, and seated ourselves at a two person table. Justin ordered a tomato sauce and seafood omerice, while I ordered a Japanese style pilaf, with pickled vegetables and seaweed. It was hearty, and homely food. We considered having an ice cream sundae, but wanted to get back to Aaron's place, so we headed back.

The next day was New Years Eve, so we slept in and had a very lazy morning. During the night we slept on a futon on the floor of the living room tatami, with a space heater running all night. Because his apartment is a duplex and not very well insulated (like most Japanese homes), it gets quite cold at night. In the morning, the kitchen was so cold that you could see your breath in the air. That evening we went back to Nara with Aaron, who was feeling better. On our way there, we noticed many homes had New Years decorations up and we saw some people carrying decorative/ lucky arrows from shrines as they walked home.

Once we arrived at Nara, we went to a family restaurant called "Skylark," which feels almost exactly like a Dennys or Perkins restaurant. Of course, the menu has things like rice seafood paella on a hot plate, Japanese style hamburgers and fried pork cutlets, and other casual family food, rather than American style food. We hung out there for a long time, eating and enjoying the "all you can drink" soft drink bar. I tried a weird kind of lavender tea and had a cappuccino from the automatic coffee machine and Justin had orange juice. Afterwards, we walked to Todaiji to check out the New Years atmosphere. New Years Eve is a huge holiday in Japan, and many families visit temples to make prayers for the coming year. The television crews where out in full force, and all kinds of food vendors were setting up for the New Years crowds. They sold foods like frankfurters, crepes, candied fruits, chocolate bananas and strawberries, grilled squid, yakisoba (fried noodles with cabbage and meat), grilled chicken, grilled corn, roasted potatoes, takoyaki (battered octopus in a fried ball), cotton candy and other festive foods. The vendors prepared for the crowds later- the crepe makers made crepe after crepe, girls cracked eggs and tossed the shells in buckets, men turned the skewers of meat on their grills… The deer wandered the pedestrian street aimlessly, vaguely looking for treats. One buck found a feast at an abandoned stall- wherever the vendor was, he or she was sure to be unhappy when they returned and saw the deer with its head stuck into barrels of food, eating away blissfully.

We walked up to the temple and around the back, to try and peek above the gates to see if they had opened the special window to reveal the Daibutsu's (Great Buddha's) face. (This window is only opened on New Year's Eve and on August 16th for the festival of light.) We couldn't see much, but could feel the place becoming more and more awake as people trickled in. We wandered off to find somewhere to wait.

We stopped by Daie because Aaron wanted to buy a hat and scarf because though he was feeling better, it was cold out… and instead of a hat and scarf, he found a sleek, black wool overcoat for under $100 that he decided to splurge on. After his purchase, Aaron took us to this hip, atmospheric little bar with friendly bartenders and we ordered carafes of wine. After watching the bartender shaking up a delicious looking orange colored brandy drink, juggling it from one hand to the next, we ordered one… It tasted as good as it looked! After that it was getting closer to the New Year and so we wandered back to Todaiji. On our way, as we were walking through the park, I looked to my right, and saw two deer standing majestically, etched in the moonlight. This is Nara, I thought… We're really in Nara, Japan! We stopped at the conbiini (convenience store) and Justin found some sparkling wine to toast in the new year, and plastic cups, and we hurried onward, with the crowds of young people that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, now all pressing towards the Todaiji temple. We passed the vendors selling food, and Justin, knowing my weakness for ika (squid), suggested I try the grilled squid on skewers. It was great, if a little undignified to eat.

When we got to Todaiji, we found that crowds of people had advanced in our absence- there was a thick crowd lined up at the gates, waiting for midnight. We didn't actually want to stand in the line to ring the bell, so we stood off to the side and watched. Police warned onlookers not to cut into the line, but pretty much left us alone. Torches burned in front of the gate, leaking long streamers of smoke into the night air. Television camera men were set up under a tent, with their equipment posed for the New Year. We waited, and watched. Several young men, one wearing a bright orange jogging outfit, eased their way up to the steps of the temple gates, leaning against the steps and then sliding under boundary gates to sit at the side, right in front of the gate. Policemen came over to chastise and harass them, but they stared off into space, looking sulky and uninvolved, until the policemen wandered off.

Then- midnight was almost there. No one was counting down the time, no one was drinking, or toasting or getting out champagne. Was it almost 2003? Could it really be the New Year? I thought… and then, officials began to unlock the gate to the temple, unhooking the latches slowly while the crowd waited breathlessly. Then… slowly, the gates swung open, and the sulky teenagers stood all as one person and RAN into the temple, to be the very first people to ring the bell for the new year. Justin and Aaron and I all laughed together and said Happy New Year… and then we retreated behind the camera crews to a shadowed glen amongst the trees to toast in the New year with our sparkling wine.

It was our first New Years in Japan…. For the Japanese families we saw, it was a quietly sober but happy time to be together. And we were just happy to be together, celebrating our first married New Years with Aaron. We walked back to the station amongst the crowds, watching people stop at the stalls for midnight snacks and treats. Justin and I tried a chocolate banana, only to find that the chocolate was not sweet, and the candied fruit, which was very sweet, very crunchy, and very very red. We got back to Aaron's apartment and crawled into our futon, tired, and happy with our adventure.

The next day was New Years Day, and Aaron had been invited to stay with a Japanese family that had befriended him, so we stayed at his apartment alone. We went out to get some groceries at the closest nice grocery store and had some coffee at a rather ladylike café (our coffee came in beautiful china cups) before heading back to Aaron's place. We camped out sitting at the kotatsu table, eating store prepared sushi and other easy foods, playing on the playstation game machine and relaxing.

January 2nd- We decided it was time to return to Kyoto before we had to go home. I made breakfast at Aaron's - his sink has its own special water heater, which takes some getting used to because there are several different levers… and then we went to Kyoto. First we went to the tourist information office, and found that the Golden Pavillion was closed for repairs. I was so disappointed! We got on a bus rather than the subway because I thought it would be more scenic, and were almost immediately sorry. The traffic was horrible- there weren't any turning arrows and so any vehicle wanting to turn just had to wait and wait and wait… of course, our bus needed to turn. Repeatedly. We inched along, and watched the people and shops outside the window. Justin said it finally felt like the Christmas shopping season- kids and families were out spending their New Years gift money and enjoying the holiday in huge crowds on the sidewalks. At last we couldn't stand the slow pace of the bus any longer and leaped off early, determined to walk the rest of the way.

We walked up to the Heian shrine, past food vendors and throngs of people, and were immediately enticed by a sign promising AmaZaki… sweet sake? Sweet sake? We were intrigued and wandered into a tent set up on the shrine grounds. We saw families and young women and men everywhere, slowly sipping a beverage- or was it a soup? It was all very mysterious, so we bought one and sat down to share it. I asked a young woman in kimono who was picking up cups if there was any wheat in it. She spoke very good English, and said she had recently visited America- she was able to explain that it was a sweet sake drink with rice and ginger. Tentatively, we sipped the drink, and found that it was like drinking a sweet, liquid, ginger candy, with slightly lumpy globs of rice and ginger in it. It was worth it for the experience, but honestly, it was just so different than we expected that we couldn't drink much.

After our drink experience, we wandered around the shrine and enjoyed watching the women in kimono and obi (kimono belts) and young couples and families. The shrine had beautiful lanterns and we actually saw a real Shinto ceremony being held out behind the place where you throw coins into trays and pray. Unfortunately, because it was a holiday, the beautiful gardens behind the shrine were closed. Afterwards, we wandered back out into the streets of Kyoto and began exploring. There are so many temples in Kyoto it seems like you can't help but stumble into them- As the time grew later, many of them were closing, but we enjoyed wandering through the walking paths and picturing them during Cherry Blossom season. Traditional Japanese culture was everywhere we looked.. I think my favorite site was the one that we only barely saw. We walked up to the gate of a closed temple, tightly boarded up, and saw the enormous figure of a bodisattva through cracks in the fence. We walked a little further along the fence and then could really see the whole figure in all its majesty. I just stared and stared at it, feeling all over again the wonder of being in Japan.

It was late, and we were getting tired, so we found a bus stop and waited. Unfortunately, everyone else was tired too, so there was a long line at the bus stop, and when the bus arrived, it was fairly full. We shuffled into the bus and managed to balance on the step in front of the back seats as everyone piled onto the bus like sardines. We clung to the top handrail and tried not to beat our surrounding passengers with our bags, and tried not to fall on their heads when the bus stopped and started at each stop. At last, we were at the station, and headed off to meet Aaron at an Izakaya, where we nibbled on food and chatted about our experiences. We ordered the best apple sorbet I've ever had- they cored an apple, froze the apple exterior, including the apple top, and then filled the apple with delicious apple sorbet! It was delightful. I couldn't decide if I liked the packaging or the sorbet itself better…

The next day was January 3rd, and we had an evening ticket for the shinkansen (bullet train). Unfortunately, it was pouring miserably, and so we really didn't think it was a good day to sightsee, so we stayed in and watched movies with aaron all afternoon. Then, we took the train to Kyoto to start the long trip home. At the train station, I bought a little box of sesame seed covered mochi filled with sweet red bean paste to take home. In Nara, we had bought omiyage (gifts) for the teachers at our school- I bought beautiful little uncooked mochi pastry squares with persimmon filling and Justin bought the same thing with a variety of fruit filings, but I hadn't actually tried or bought any of them for myself- so I fixed that at the train station. We got on the train, and this time we had bought bento boxes at the station. To tell you the truth, I don't really like bento box food- elderly pickled vegetables they have and bland rice dishes don't taste as nice as they look in the box. But, they are the most practical thing to eat on a long train ride, since every station sells them. Next time I take a shinkansen ride I think I will buy separate prepared foods like fried tofu bags filled with rice and grilled miso rice balls…

We were glad to get home, and were exhausted from all of our adventures of the last two weeks. Home was a very comfortable place to be again, with all of our things and foods and comfortable futon. But as we looked back on our trip, we were very glad we had gone. We met a new part of Japan during this trip. All of Japan is proud of its cultural heritage, but in Nara and Kyoto, you almost feel as though you've been transported back in time, especially on New Year's Eve. Despite the camera crews and electrical generators and wires, you only have to look into the smoking torches in front of the temple to see, through the haze, a vision of what the temple was like when it first began. At Todaiji temple, we could almost imagine away celebrants' modern clothing, cell phones and cartoon character logos and see the generations of Japanese that came to the temple hundreds of years ago. The anticlimactic feeling of the new year begins to make sense- what significance does the changing of the years make when the temple has been here, for so many people, for so many years? For me, though, when I think of 2003, I think I will always remember the silhouette of deer in moonlight, the smoke of the temple torches- and the shimmer of the Todaiji pond at midnight.


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